Cafcass has warned that, following a rise in open active cases, it is close to triggering the use of its prioritisation protocol in the region that includes South Yorkshire and Humberside.
It has also published updated guidance which outlines how arrangements are to be made for social workers to see children and families, work in the Cafcass offices and attend court during the enduring crisis associated with Covid-19. This guidance replaces the Covid-19 protocols which were published in July.
In a letter on developments in the South Yorkshire and Humberside region sent to the Association of Lawyers for Children on 17 November, Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto wrote: “In short, we have had to develop this protocol to enable us to prioritise the most urgent incoming work should we find ourselves with too many open active cases to allocate to Cafcass social workers.”
She added that the national family justice recovery group, including senior judges, HMCTS, MOJ, DfE, Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru and ADCS had all been sighted through the protocol’s development and sign off.
Tiotto said: “You will be aware that since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, demand for family justice has not reduced and in fact in recent months we have seen increases in both Public and Private law applications in the context of a drop in national throughput through the family courts of about 20%.
She explained that the net impact on Cafcass was that it had about 20% more open work, with longer durations and more requests for additional work to support our reports to the courts.
“Of course, the whole family justice and local authority children’s services systems are under pressure and will be for some extended period with significant impact on all aspects of work to support vulnerable children and their families,” Tiotto continued.
“Whilst there is a strong focus on reform as a solution and good progress is being made, we have the immediate challenges now of balancing the safety of social work caseloads with the needs of children and their families. No options are good and so it is with regret that we are having to make the really difficult decision to decide where, within all of our new open work, we prioritise social work resource.”
Tiotto said the affected region including South Yorkshire and Humberside had 16% more open active cases (public and private) than it did in February this year.
She added that Cafcass had continued to receive a high number of public law cases (81 –which will represent approximately 130 children) of which a number (32 cases at the time of writing) could not be safely allocated given the caseloads of the staff in the region.
“Those cases are currently being regularly reviewed by practitioners on duty which means they will receive some oversight but they are not allocated to a Guardian to start the work.”
Tiotto noted that one of Cafcass’ KPIs measures its ability to allocate public care cases within three working days. In the affected region currently, only 54% are being allocated in this time frame, she admitted.
Cafcass’ Covid-19 programme board has therefore been formally asked by the Regional Assistant Director and the Director of Operations to consider triggering the protocol as early as today (23 November”.
A final decision was to be made last week (18 November) subject to four final options that the team were asked to explore further, Tiotto said. “These include, whether the public law work that is awaiting allocation can be transferred to another region (unlikely), whether any additional agency or temporary staff would sufficiently relieve the pressure and whether there are Cafcass Associates with capacity to take on new work.”
Cafcass’ chief executive explained that if it were to trigger the protocol, this “would essentially mean that new work in the lower priority category (without known safeguarding issues) would not be allocated to a Cafcass social worker”.
Cases would be reviewed weekly by a manager and where information came to light that alters the assessment of any risk of harm to a child, the case would be allocated.
The continuing application of the protocol would be considered fortnightly with DFJs and Cafcass senior managers in the regions where it is triggered.
Cafcass still expects to allocate all cases in priority groups 1 and 2. “This covers most public law work and any private law work where it is assessed that children are exposed to harm and risk from parental disputes about their care and contact arrangements,” Tiotto said.
“At this point in time, we estimate about 80% of our work is in these two higher priority categories, with only a small proportion (the remaining 20%) in categories 3 and 4. We are therefore unclear as to whether not allocating work assigned to priority 3 and 4 will create enough headroom.”
She added that this would be kept under regular review both locally and in national recovery conversations.